The largest gas turbine manufacturer in the world, GE’s Greenville-made gas turbines are turning up the lights internationally at 3,600 rpm
What weighs 350 tons, spins at 3,600 revolutions per minute, resembles a piece of jewelry inside and is made in the Upstate? It’s a heavy-duty gas turbine that can provide power for everything from energy companies to developing nations, and GE has been manufacturing them in the Upstate since 1968.
The plant on Garlington Road in Greenville is now the largest gas turbine manufacturer in the world, according to former plant manager Paula Martin. (Martin recently took on the job of GE’s general manager of Power Generation Services Global Repairs and Shane Long assumed the plant manager post.)
The GE factory supplies gas turbines to the global market and produces gas turbines in both 50 hertz and 60 hertz.
The plant now employs 3,350 in a 1.4 million-square-foot facility that houses manufacturing and lab space on more than 400 acres, Martin said. The Upstate location was a sister plant to the original power generation location in Schenectady, N.Y., where Thomas Edison started what became General Electric Company.
For a developing nation, power generation is a fundamental building block of an economy, Martin said. “GE equipment is what turns on your lights, what runs your computer. In a developing country, the ability for them to have dependable power is critical for industry, so many of our customers are countries.”
The turbines can also be used for compression for creating liquid natural gas in the oil and gas industry.
The local plant runs three shifts, and employees have to be highly skilled to manufacture and assemble the large but precise pieces of equipment. “We’re really low-profile because we’re a B2B company,” Martin said.
Piece by piece
At a cost of $20-40 million, a turbine takes about one year to construct from molten metal to finished turbine, said Martin. On the production floor, employees are assembling the more than 100,000 parts that will become gas turbines. Martin likens them to a “giant Swiss watch,” similar to a piece of jewelry inside with a tolerance of one-quarter the width of a human hair.
It takes about eight weeks to assemble a turbine, said Chris Bruner, customer relations representative, whose father also worked at the plant.
The turbines have two main parts: the case and the rotor. Cases are made of cast iron or steel, typically in Asia. It takes six months to manufacture a case, usually in five parts, and eight weeks to arrive via ship. After the rotor is assembled, the case is installed around it.
The rotor spins to generate the power. Gas is injected into one end of the turbine and ignited, and the hot air produced catches the “buckets,” which look like fins, turning the 80-ton rotor.
The turbine gradually tapers in shape, with each set of fins set on smaller and smaller wheels. Just like a car’s wheel, the rotors must be balanced and are outfitted with small weights, said Bruner.
The plant contains 19 manufacturing cells, he said, each cell run like a mini-business with its own team. Multiple cranes tower above the assembly floor, one of them with a load rating of 200 tons. These heavy-duty lifters move the turbines and parts from one station to another.
Five-foot diameter turbine wheels, carefully stacked so as not to damage the $500,000 pieces, sit waiting for assembly inside the cases. The workforce now knows where in the world the turbines are bound, said Bruner, with a photo and map outside each manufacturing area and plate attached to each turbine with the customer’s names.
Testing and development
Once assembled, the mammoth machines used to be put through their paces on a full-speed, no-load test stand. As of two years ago, the Upstate plant added a unique full-speed, full-load test stand, which allows the manufacturer to more thoroughly test the turbine, Martin said.
The test facility located at the GE Greenville campus is the largest and most powerful non-grid connected validation facility in the world, showcasing the latest in gas turbine validation technology, said the company. It enables the testing of GE turbines in a thorough and complete way. The facility does not produce electricity, but operates independent of the electricity grid.
“This industry is all about technology,” Martin said. In addition to developing new manufacturing processes, GE is now developing new turbines with fuel flexibility, which will allow customers in different areas to burn different grades of fuel. In the combustion lab, technicians simulate “any sort of fuel cocktail that customers can dream up,” Martin said.
After they are assembled and tested, the massive turbines are loaded onto specially designed rail cars and moved along GE’s own rail siding on their way to the Port of Charleston. For some of the F series turbines, the special car hydraulically shifts to the side to allow a passing train to get by, said Bruner.
Some of the plant’s customers include Duke Power and Southern Company domestically and Saudi Electric Company, CFE of Mexico, Tokyo Electric and Power Company and Sonelgaz in Algeria, said Martin.
This year, the plant received the world’s largest high-efficiency, high-output gas turbine, an HA model nicknamed HArriett, from its construction spot in France to be tested on their full-speed, full-load test stand.
Development and support
GE also does repair work for customers and provides spare parts, Martin said. A rotor lasts at least 20 years, or approximately 160,000 hours, and can be rebuilt or replaced. What drives replacement is developing technology related to efficiency and output, she said. There is also an outage simulator, which allows designers to design real-world outage processes for the turbines in the field.
The integrated campus has been an advantage, allowing design engineers and production to be on the same site, so new products can be developed, manufactured and tested on the same campus, she said. The repair business also offers valuable feedback.
“The engineers who are designing the new parts can step into the next building and see the parts that have come back from the field [for repair]. There’s a hard-wired feedback loop there,” said Martin. “It’s pretty powerful and unique.”
Shane Long echoed the value of the novelty process. “We get a total life-cycle look at the product. We get to learn very quickly what our hardware is capable of.”
For the future
GE is keenly aware of the need for skilled manufacturing employees and revived a long-dormant machine apprenticeship program two years ago with Greenville Technical College In May, the first group graduated from the two-year program.
“The skill of our workforce is critically important,” Martin said. “Everyone knows that part of their job is to figure out a better way – continuous improvement in safety, quality, cost and cycle. That’s part of the culture.”
In addition, Long said the facility will soon be home to the recently announced Advanced Manufacturing Works, which will not only offer the best manufacturing capability for the gas turbine division, but for all of the Power and Water division: wind turbines, nuclear, steam turbines and water.